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THE CHEROKEE IN GRAHAM COUNTY

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The Graham County Indians known locally as the Snowbird Indians are the heirs of a great and powerful Cherokee Indian nation that existed in the Southern Appalachian Region long before the white settlers moved into these mountains. The proper name by which the Cherokee called themselves is "Yun-Wiya" which means or signifies "real people."  The Cherokee are said to be of the Iroquoian stock and originally dwelt about the headwaters of the Ohio River. Wars with their neighbors over the years caused the Cherokee to move south into mountain regions, including the valleys of Stecoah, Cheoah, and Yellow Creek in Graham County. The Cherokee of Graham County had to defend themselves against warring Creeks to the south, on the west against the Chickasaws, and the Shawnees, and on the north against the Iroquois. The whites too, as their forces grew stronger, began to make ever-increasing demands upon the Cherokee. In 1798 they signed the Treaty of Tellico surrendering a portion of their lands with the pledge from the government that it would "guarantee the remainder of their country forever." The government did not keep its pledge as is clearly indicated by further demands reflected in the second and third Treaties of Tellico in 1804 and 1805. The Cherokee made every effort to adapt their ways and survive as a nation. A written language was developed, a national newspaper was published in their own language, and a constitution was written following closely the representative model of the U.S. government. No nation ever made greater progress in so short a period of time. However, the Cherokee as a nation was engaged in an unending struggle for its survival. 

The Cherokee were able to hold their mountain land until the coming of the white settlers. In 1738 the Cherokee population was greatly reduced by an epidemic of smallpox. In 1540 DeSoto encountered the Cherokee in the mountain valleys of this region, the first contact with the white man. Life in Graham County for the Cherokee was a life of farming, hunting and fishing. In the early 1800's trading parties moved into Graham County followed closely by the white settlers as the great westward movement pushed onward.

Early records show that the first white settlers lived harmoniously with the Cherokee in Graham County until the U. S. government undertook to move the Cherokee out of their mountain lands to far away Oklahoma in an episode unequalled for grief and pathos by any other passage in our national history. Gold had been found in the Cherokee lands and the Indians without deliberation were forced to leave Graham County and other tribally occupied lands. It was said the Indians did not need gold and furthermore could hunt upon the level plains. The great movement west popularized as the "Trail of Tears" started in 1838. The roundup of the Cherokee in Graham County began with the arrival of the forces of General Winfield Scott. A stockade was built in Stecoah and a larger fort constructed on Fort Hill known as Fort Montgomery. The Cherokee were pushed from their cherished homes, cultivated fields, and expansive hunting grounds; hence herded into the humiliating compounds by entire families as specified by army orders. Men, women ,and children were seized without notice at bayonet point wherever they could be found and removed to the stockades. Livestock and all major household goods went to the white successors who often immediately burned the homes and even dug into Indian graves searching for valuables.

In October 1838 the procession of exiles began, composed of 14,000 including the old, the sick, and the young with only the most meager of provisions, cooking utensils, blankets, and small remembrances in six hundred wagons. Winter came in mid-journey and the weary travelers averaged ten miles a day over the frozen earth. Often they stopped to bury their dead and worship the Great Spirit. Meanwhile a new President, Martin Van Buren, near Christmas 1838, reported to Congress that all had gone well. The whole removal was reported having "the happiest effects."

A provisional military road was built by General Scott and his soldiers across the mountains to Andrews and Murphy for destination Chattanooga and the long, shameful journey by the way of Illinois and Missouri to the designated area in Oklahoma. The road leads up Long Creek over the Snowbird Mountains. James Tatham affected the survey of the road known locally as the Tatham Gap Road without an instrument.

Not all the Cherokee in Graham County were caught up in the army roundup. A goodly number of our Cherokee escaped into the mountains of the Snowbird, Buffalo, and Santeetlah area and hid out where a number of their heirs reside until this day. The story of the remnants which remained in these mountains cannot be accounted for except as one relives the story of the beloved Tsali.

In recent years the sad story of Tsali has been told and retold in history and drama. For many years after the execution of Tsali and his sons, this tragedy was given little notice or publicity. It lived on only in the heart of Old Nancy, who was the wife of Tsali and the mother of some of his sons as well as in the hearts of the widows of the sons of Tsali.  No mention of the main events are to be found in the records of the war department. President Jackson was sending weekly notes to Congress on how smoothly the program of removing the Cherokees from their homes had gone. Indeed these glowing reports regarding all the tribes of Indians who were being dispossessed of their lands filled many pages of the Congressional records of that time. They seem incredible to us as we read them today. Here is one example from the pen of President Jackson in 1837.

"The plan of removing the Aboriginal people who yet remained in the settled portions of the United States to the country west of the Mississippi River approaches its consummation. The plans for the removal and re-establishment of these peoples have been dictated by a spirit of benevolence and enlarged liberality."

In his reports to Congress, Jackson made no mention of the 7,000 U. S. soldiers who were under orders to remove the Cherokee Indians by force, if necessary. No account took into consideration that out of 16,000 Indians in the states of North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, only 516 had signed the treaty. Over 15,000 Cherokee signed petition after petition asking to remain in their native land.  The Cherokee had friends in Washington who fought for their right to remain. Many Congressmen including Davy Crockett, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster spoke eloquently in. their behalf. Crockett described the action as "unjust, dishonest, cruel, and short-sighted in the extreme." After this exchange, Jackson's influence brought about the political undoing of Crockett. All efforts were to no avail as President Jackson was persistent and unyielding in his position of removal of the Indians from their homeland.

Old man Tsali, his wife Nancy, his sons, and their wives had refused to come to the stockade voluntarily. They were seized by soldiers and taken away from their homes in the region of the Nantahalas. These same soldiers escorted them to a stockade near the junction of the Tuckaseegee and the Little Tennessee River. They spent the night at an encampment a few yards from the home of the father of Burtin Welch. During the night the Indian women managed to conceal beneath their skirts several tomahawks and knives.  The next morning the party proceeded on their journey. Just before they reached the post office at Fairfax some of the Indian women complained of being unable to walk. The soldiers allowed these women to mount horses. The lieutenant in charge was riding and holding a small Indian boy about seven years old in his arms.

A thick and almost impenetrable laurel thicket along this bank of the Little Tennessee where Paineís Branch flowed into the thicket across the hill and back down to Fairfax where the main road followed the bend of the river provided the setting. A member of the Welch family had followed along and was at that moment hiding in the laurel thicket. Suddenly the Indian women, by pre-arranged signal, threw the tomahawks and knives to the Indian men and galloped off around the thicket and on to the trail and disappeared.

The Indian men fell upon the soldiers with all the strength they possessed. One soldier was killed on the spot; another died three miles below Fairfax. A third soldier, badly wounded, died some days later at Calhoun, Tennessee. The Indians escaped into the Smoky Mountains leaving not a trace behind. Immediately after the report reached headquarters, a full company of soldiers came from Knoxville, Tennessee,  to track down the fugitives. The soldiers broke up into detachments and scoured the mountains and coves for weeks. Not one trace could be found of the Indians.

Finally Will Thomas, the white friend of the Indians, agreed to bring in the fugitives under two conditions: first, that the fugitives were to be tried by their own people; and second, that the Indians who had not been removed should be allowed to remain here in the mountains of North Carolina. Will Thomas went to the hiding place of Tsali and persuaded him to come down out of the mountains and surrender. It was at the home of Abraham Wiggins, on Alarka, that Tsali ate his last meal. Abraham Wiggins was a close relative of Will Thomas. Margaret Wiggins, wife of Abraham, served food to the entire party. She insisted on holding prayer service in the clearing. Tsali was then led off, tried, and shot by his own people for whom he gave his life.

Years later, after Abraham and Margaret Wiggins had moved to Graham County, they were interviewed by a reporter from the old Raleigh Post. They insisted that Tsali was the only one of the fugitives present at their home on that fateful day. Later Will Thomas told them that the sons of Tsali had been betrayed by an Indian and had been captured. Alonzo, Jake, and George had been captured at the head of Forneyís Creek and shot at a point on the right bank of the Little Tennessee River a short distance from Panther Creek.  Later Burtin Welch corroborated this story. He claimed to be an eye witness at the execution. Welch reported that Jake gave the man ten cents and asked that it be given to his wife. That dime was all Jake had to leave her.

According to Abraham Wiggins it was some time after the execution of Tsali's sons that Tsali himself was brought down from the mountains. Tsali was shot a short distance below Bryson City.  Mrs. Welch repeated this account many times in her life. She said Tsali's wife, Nancy, came to her father's house and asked to be shown Tsali's grave. When shown the grave Nancy sat down beside it, piled up the sand with her hands until she made a mound, then rocked herself to and fro and cried.  The house of Old Tsali, near the mouth of the Nantahala River, stood for many years. In the chimney corner were old Tsali's plow stock and harness, the traces of which had been made of hickory bark. Many of the details in this account are taken from a book by Bud Wentz, printed in 1878.

Probably the most prominent leader of the Cherokee in Graham County was Junaluska. He had come to the attention of President Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814 when Jackson was leading a force against the Creek Indians. It is generally accepted by historians that Junaluska saved Jackson's life during the battle. The barbarous Creek Indians had secured themselves in the bend of the Tallapoosa River in a curvature resembling a horse shoe. Nature had furnished a situation of defense near impossible to penetrate. To approach it would expose an army to cross fire from the enemy. Junaluska and his warriors swam under cover of darkness and the firing of muskets and rifles to the peninsula and seized the canoes of the enemy at mortal peril and set fire to a few of the buildings there situated. It is said that Junaluska "braved the worst and achieved the most at the telling crisis of the battle."

The great leader went with his people to the Oklahoma land, later returned, walking the entire route back to Graham County. Junaluska continued still to be a leader of his people. After his return, the state of North Carolina gave him a large tract of land in Graham County. In addition to 337 acres of land, the 1847 North Carolina legislature made Junaluska a citizen of North Carolina and gave him $100.00. The land given to Junaluska now incorporates part of Robbinsville and Milltown.  At Junaluska's death the farm was sold to W. W. Hayes; he in turn sold the property to General George Smythe of Ohio. Still later the land was purchased by George B. Walker, and sold in 1911 to Whiting Lumber Company.

Junaluska would meet with the Snowbird Indian Council leaders at the Council grounds where he is now buried in the town of Robbinsville. The Cherokee leader died in 1858 after a long and hard struggle to keep his people in the mountains he loved. The story is told that Junaluska was an old and sick man before his death. There was supposed to have been a healing spring used by the Cherokee across the mountain at Citico, Tennessee. Junaluska was on the trail leading to the healing spring when his death took place.

On November 10, 1910, on a ridge within the town of Robbinsville, the General Joseph Winston Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution unveiled a native stone monument in memory of Junaluska. Largely through the untiring devotion and efforts of Carolina A. Hawkins of the DAR the idea of the unveiling conceived and developed. Bob Colvard was asked to select a stone from Colvard's lands. It required eight yoke of oxen one-half day to pull the immense boulder on a sled one mile to the top of the hill where Junaluska is buried. The bronze tablet attached to the stone monument has this inscription:

 "Here lie the bodies of the Cherokee Chief Junaluska, and Nicie his wife. Together with his warriors, he saved the life of General Jackson, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and for his bravery and faithfulness, North Carolina made him a citizen and gave him land in Graham County. He died November 20, 1858, aged more than one hundred years. This monument was erected to his memory by the Joseph Winston Chapter DAR 1910."

Hundreds of people gathered for the impressive ceremony in spite of inclement weather. The Baptist minister, the Rev. Armstrong Cornsilk with Lewis Smith serving as interpreter, gave the main address. Other speakers at the ceremony were Thomas A. Carpenter, George B. Walker, and J. N. Moody. Maggie Axe, who resided in the Snowbird section, was one of the Indian maidens unveiling the monument.  The program for the day was as follows:

1. Music by Murphy band 11. Chorus, "Blessed Home," sung entirely in their own tongue by the Cherokee who were present
2. Chorus, Star Spangled Banner" 12. Presentation of monument and unveiling address by Mr. J. N. Moody
3. Prayer of Invocation by Rev. Mr. Natney, Pastor, M. E. Church South 13. Address of acceptance of monument and presentation of deed, Mr. C. B. Walker
4. Address of Welcome, Capt. N. G. (Green) Phillips 14. Monument unveiled by two Indian girls, Misses Maggie Axe and Ellie Jackson
5. Music by band 15. Chorus, "Carolina"
6. Biographical Sketch of Junaluska by T. A. Carpenter, Supt. of Public Education of Graham County 16. Prayer of Dedication by Rev. C. D. Yeargin
7. Greetings, from Alabama by an Alabamian, Rev. C. B. Yeargin, Pastor of the Robbinsville Presbyterian Church; and from Patriotic Orders of Juniors and Odd Fellows 17. Resolution of thanks read by Mr. T. A. Carpenter for R. B. Slaughter, Sec. of Junaluska Monument Committee
8. Music by band 18. Chorus, "America"
9. Personal reminiscences of Junaluska by Rev. Armstrong Cornsilk, Pastor of Cherokee Church; Rev. Joseph Wiggins, Methodist Episcopal Church South; Capt. N. G. Phillips; and Mr. Dow Hooper 19. Benediction by Rev. G. W. Orr, Pastor of Baptist Church
10. Music by band 20. Music by band

 

Junaluska Monument Dedication Ceremony, 1910

Junaluska Monument

According to tradition, Junaluska's mother was buried on Yellow Creek in Graham County; however, no documentation of this is available. Gaffney Long, an Indian who lives on Snowbird, says there are a number of Snowbird families who are relatives of the famed Junaluska: Posey Wachacha, Jack Wachacha, Jarrett Wachacha, John Wayne Wachacha, Susie Long, Winnie Teesateskie, Sara Wachacha, Nancy Ledford, and Nace Teesateskie.

Colonel Will H. Thomas was a white leader of the Cherokee in the early history of Graham County. Thomas purchased lands in Graham County for the Cherokee on their return from the west and for those that had hidden out from the western movement. Most of the land was purchased on Little Snowbird. Col. Thomas formed a regiment of North Carolina Troops for the Confederate States in the War Between the States. The Sixty-Ninth Regiment - Infantry, was in part composed of Indian companies, and was a portion of what was known as the "Thomas Legion." Company "A" of the Regiment had Graham County Indians listed by the names, Second Lt. Peter Graybeard, Ground Squirrel, Atowhee, Chowah, Kooe-Skooe, Ochumteh, Tetoltogib, Owl Watta, and Junaluskee.

Thomas' purchase of lands for the Cherokee and the later conveyance of the lands to the United States Government as Trustee for the Eastern Band of Cherokee made sure that the Cherokee would continue to have possession of his property. Some of the lands in Graham County formerly owned by the Cherokee as individuals were lost to the white man by questionable actions of the new settlers. A good example is the lands owned by a Cherokee named Ground Squirrel. Records show that Ground Squirrel was an old man, very sick, and dying of cancer. Just before his death, in the darkness of night, by the light of a smoked lamp, some white men went to his home and got the old man to make his mark on a deed conveying his land to them. Like the long walk west by our Graham County Cherokee, some of the actions in taking the Indian land are a dark section in our history.

After the formation of Graham County in1872, action was taken to set up some type of school system for the Cherokee. On Sept. 6, 1880, a school district was set up to include the Indians. Like all early schools, the Cherokee went to the one teacher schoolhouse. Some Cherokee children were sent to school at Yellow Hill in Swain County. J. F. Hyde was one of the white schoolteachers that taught the Cherokee in Graham County. Many teachers have served the Indians faithfully at Snowbird throughout the years. The last teachers at Snowbird were Al Lee and his wife who served until the Indians were transferred to Robbinsville Schools in 1963. The Snowbird Community continued to be served by an education specialist, Mrs. Rebecca Harless, assigned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who promoted all types of educational activities with the community.

Snowbird Indian School

Oleta Wilson's class at Snowbird, 1953

The Cherokee were farming the lands when the white settlers arrived here in Graham County. Corn was one of the main crops. The streams and woodlands constituted a good source of food. The Cherokee used timber to build their early homes during the days of the white settlement. The early settlers introduced raising cattle and the Cherokee started growing beef. Jno Ropetwister was a Cherokee that was successful in cattle growing. It is said that Ropetwister would drive his large herds of cattle over into Tennessee and sell them for gold coin. After the death of Ropetwister it seems that both Indians and whites became interested in what happened to Ropetwister's gold. Many thought the old Cherokee had saved a great amount of gold during his successful cattle growing and sales. The legend of Ropetwister's gold and what happened to it remains one of the unsolved Cherokee mystery stories in Graham County.

The records of Graham County for the year 1894 show the names of a number of Cherokee families living in the county. Jno Ropetwister, Stone Chickalulah, Jno Tahquittee, Fox Squirrel Jackson, Will Axe, Jno Teesateskie and others. These Cherokee are the forefathers of a number of our present Indian residents. Maggie Axe is one of our senior Cherokee residents who can recall the early hard life of her people in the Snowbird section of the county.

According to many historians the Cherokee Indians were the most learned in art and literature of any of the tribes in the United States. One of their numbers, Sequoyah, invented an alphabet of phonetic syllables and sounds from the Cherokee spoken language. Later he reduced these sounds to a written language, having arrived at a selection of 76 characters. Soon the Cherokee could read and write in their own language. By 1828 they were publishing their own newspaper. The Cherokee had several settlements in Graham County long before the white people came. We are privileged to have many of the descendants of this noble race of people living in our county today.

The soft musical language of the Cherokee contains the vowel sounds a-e-i-u. The vowel O is sounded as broad A-; L often has a sound like R-; G like K-; Tís has a sound like Ch; the suffix Yi refers to location or place. Many of the communities, streams, and mountains still retain the names given them by the Cherokee. In many cases the spelling of the Indian word has been changed into its English phonetic equivalent. Sometimes the English translation of the Indian word has been used. The book Occoneechee, by Robert Frank Jarrett, gives some of the Indian words for the names of the present-day places:

The Cherokee People - Ani-Yun-WeYa-(real people) from Yunwi (person) Ya (real) Ani (prefix)
Buffalo- (Yun-sai)
Johanna Bald - Di Ya' Ha Li' Yi' (Lizzard Place) from. Di Ya - Ha Li (Lizard) and (Yi) place.
Santeetlah - The Cherokee say that Santeetlah was not derived from their language. The Cherokee name for Little Santeetlah was Tsunda ni ti yi. Big Santeetlah was called Na Yu' H Ge Yun' I (sand place.)
Tallulah - Uncertain origin (Legend says Falling Waters)
West Buffalo - (Yun sai) Site of a Cherokee Settlement.
Snowbird (Tuti Yi) from Tuti (snowbird) and Yi (location)
Y Wa I (A place on Yellow Creek)
Cheoah Ford - Da' Na Wa Sa Tsun' Yi from Da' Na Wa (war) and Asatsun
Yi (A crossing place or ford) -
A caivn on Cheoah River - Degal Gun' Yi (Where they are piled up)
Cheoah (Tsi Ya-Hi) from Tsiya (Otter) and Yi (location)
Sweet Gum (Tsilaluyi) from Tsi la lu (Sweet Gum) and Yi (location)
Slick Rock Creek - Nun Yu'-Twi 'Ska from Nunya (rock) and Twiska (slick) Stecoah (Stika' YI) meaning little place Mountain Peak head of Cheoah river Tsuba 'yelunyi (isolated place)
Tuskeegee (Tu' Ski Gi) Settlement on Tuskeegee Creek

Another Cherokee Indian of our country who became legendary largely because of his age was Old Cheesequire. Cheesequire is reported to have lived to be 137 years old. The final resting place of the old Indian who died sometime after the year 1880 on Ground Squirrel Branch has been located and marked with a large marble marker at the low gap on the old Indian Trail from the Stump Fort to Fort Montgomery (Robbinsville) directly across and up the ridge from the residence of Roscoe Orr.

Cheesequire, who said that he played ball on the present site of the City of Knoxville when Knoxville was largely old sage grass fields, said that he was born about the year 1743 and was sixteen years old when the last herd of buffalo left Cheoah Valley. He reportedly followed the herd across the present Hooper Bald as they headed west. The late Charlie Denton remembered Cheesequire wandering about the countryside clothed in his deerskins and pointed hat, barefooted in all kinds of weather. Lorenzo Dow Hooper made a tin-type picture of Cheesequire in Robbinsville about 1878 from which the above picture was drawn by Mary Howell.

Following is a prayer from the Scriptures Luke 11: 2, 3, 4 written in the Cherokee language by Clarence Jackson of Snowbird:

The Cherokee Indians of Graham County are a hardy people who have weathered the hardships of a cruel wilderness, many Indian tribal wars, a death march to the west, smallpox epidemics, and the coming of white settlers. In most cases they have been able to retain a pure bloodline of the true Cherokee and also preserve their native language. Many of their early customs are retained and the native craftsmanship is present with the older folks. The Graham County Cherokee in the Snowbird, Buffalo, and Santeetlah sections is part of the fading memory of a great Cherokee nation that composed an area of about 40,000 square miles, including parts of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.


The following is a transcript of Major General Winfield Scottís proclamation to the Cherokee Nation:

Major General Winfield Scott, of the United States Army, sends to the Cherokee People remaining in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama, this ADDRESS.

Cherokees! The President of the United States has sent me, with a powerful army, to cause you, in obedience to the Treaty of 1835, to join that part of your people who are already established in prosperity, on the other side of the Mississippi. Unhappily, the two years, which were allowed for the purpose, you have suffered to pass away without following, and without making any preparation to follow. and now, or by the time that this solemn address shall reach your distant settlements, the emigration must be commenced in haste, but, I hope, without disorder'. I have no power, by granting a farther delay, to correct the error that you have committed. The full moon of May is already on the wane, and before another shall have passed away, every Cherokee man, woman and child, in those States, must be in motion to join their brethren in the far West.

My Friends! This is no sudden determination on the part of the President, whom you and I must now obey. By the treaty, the emigration was to have been completed on, or before the 23rd of this month, and the president has constantly kept you warned during the two year's allowed, through all his officers and agents in this country, that the Treaty would be enforced.

I am come to carry out that determination My troops already occupy many positions in the country that you are to abandon, and thousands, and thousands are approaching, from, every quarter, to render resistance and escape alike hopeless. All those troops, regular and militia are your friends. Receive them and confide in them, as such. Obey them when they tell you that you can remain no longer in this country. Soldiers are as kind hearted as brave, and the desire of every one of us is to execute our painful duty in mercy. We are commanded by the President to act toward you in that spirit, and such is also the wish of the whole people of America.

Chiefs, head-men and warriors! Will you, then, by resistance, compel us to resort to arms? God forbid! Or will you, by flight, seek to hide yourselves in mountains and forests, and thus oblige us to hunt you down? Remember that, in pursuit, it may be impossible to avoid conflicts. The blood of the white man, or the blood of the red man, may be spilt, and if spilt, however accidentally, it may be impossible for the discreet and humans among you, or among us to prevent a general war and carnage. Think of this, my Cherokee brethren! I am an old warrior, and have been present at many a scene of slaughter; but spare me, I beseech you, the horror of witnessing the destruction of the Cherokees.

Do not, I invite you, even wait for the close approach of the troops; but make such preparations for emigration as you can, and hasten to this place, to Rossí Landing, or to Gunterís Landing, where you all will be received in kinds by officers selected for the purpose. You will find food for all, and clothing for the destitute, at either of those places, and thence at your case, and in comfort, be transported to your new homes according to the terms of the Treaty.

This is the address of a warrior to warriors. May his entreaties be kindly received, and may the God of both prosper, the Americans and Cherokees and preserve them long in peace and friendship with each other!

- Winfield Scott, Cherokee Agency, May 10, 1838


The following is a copy of the legislative act of Jan. 2, 1847 granting Citizenship, 337 acres of land, and the sum of $100 to the Cherokee Chief Junaluska, furnished by Bob Barker